Violence punctuates Yemen protests; demonstrators crowd square in Bahrain

February 16, 2011

SANAA, YEMEN - Anti-government demonstrations unfolded for a fifth straight day here Tuesday, marked by brief but violent clashes, while thousands of people clamored for democratic reforms in Bahrain, as the seismic effects of the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia rippled as far as the Persian Gulf.

In the Yemeni capital, several hundred pro-democracy and pro-government demonstrators clashed near the old campus of Sanaa University, with the fights spilling into side streets, witnesses said. The tensions erupted when government supporters attacked their rival protesters with knives, rocks and sticks, forcing them to disperse.

Witnesses said that Yemeni security forces beat some anti-government demonstrators and that police did not attempt to stop the violence. Several protesters, including a lawmaker, were wounded, according to witnesses.

"They were bleeding and stepped on by security men," said Abdul Rahman Barman, a human rights activist. "Security was attacking as if the protesters were animals and had no reason to live.

"What wrongs did these youths do to deserve being attacked?" he added.

The Tuesday protests were smaller than those seen in previous days but nevertheless underscored the rising tensions in this Middle Eastern country since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down last week. In the southern city of Taiz, hundreds of protesters have staged a mass sit-in on the streets, vowing to remain there until Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled for more than 32 years, resigns. Saleh pledged under the pressure of earlier protests to step down in 2013 and not pass on the reins of power to his son.

Top Yemeni officials are voicing concern about the unrest escalating in a nation already grappling with myriad problems, including internal conflicts and an ambitious branch of al-Qaeda.

"Some people want to drag the country toward a crisis and try to undermine the security and stability of the country through inciting anarchy and violence," Saleh told sheiks and local officials Tuesday, according to the state news agency.

In Bahrain, several thousand protesters peacefully took over a central square in the capital, Manama, after the deaths of two demonstrators in clashes with the police, the Associated Press reported. In the face of a heavy police presence, the protesters called for a new constitution and more freedoms.

In an apparent bid to head off an Egypt-style rebellion, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa promised in a rare address on national television to investigate the killings of the protesters and enact democratic reforms. The nation's majority Shiites have long complained of discrimination at the hands of the ruling Sunni elite. Last year, a crackdown triggered weeks of riots and clashes in Shiite villages, underscoring the potential for unrest in one of the Middle East's wealthiest countries.

In Yemen, the region's poorest country, many protesters view a change of government as the only way to improve their lives; an estimated 40 percent of Yemen's 23 million people make less than $2 a day.

In Sanaa, the anti-government demonstrators chanted: "The people want the regime to fall," while others carried placards directed at Saleh that read, "Leave."

Others yelled: "Change is your only option."

A few miles away, at the new campus of Sanaa University, long the focal point of the anti-government demonstrators, hundreds of Saleh supporters took over the area Tuesday. The move appeared to be a symbolic attempt to assert the government supporters' strength in the face of the continuing protests.

"With our blood and souls, we sacrifice for Ali," the crowds chanted.

But one member of Saleh's ruling party quit in protest Tuesday.

"The ruling party has failed to fight corruption and is involved in attacking peaceful demonstrators," said Abdul Kareem Aslami, a member of parliament. "This is against my morals, and that is why I must resign."

Top ruling party officials deny involvement in the attacks and say that Saleh supporters are acting on their own.

Human rights groups have criticized the violence committed by Saleh's loyalists and security forces, which have also beaten and detained journalists. Yemen's journalists union denounced the attacks, saying they would widen the unrest in the country.

"The attacks on protesters and journalists using sticks and knives will take the Yemeni government one step closer to being like Tunisia and Egypt," said Saeed Thabit, the head of the union.

Hakim Almasmari is a special correspondent.

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